Returns to form 

New ones from Liz Phair, Metallica and Radiohead

Liz Phair
Liz Phair
Capitol Records

The first thing you’re bound to notice about Liz Phair is the cover: Phair with legs wide, straddling a guitar, shirtless. It’s as if she’s actually selling sex! A look through the liner notes only furthers Phair’s image priorities as (1) sexpot, and (2) singer-songwriter.

The next thing you’ll notice is that Phair wants to tweak the sexpot cliché. “You think that I go home at night/Take off my clothes turn out the light…I’d drive naked though the park/And run the stop sign in the dark,” is how the first track, “Extraordinary,” begins. The idea is that Phair isn’t as sexy as you think. Instead, she’s just a regular gal that her fans (and would-be lovers) don’t know a damn thing about. Poppy, fun, guitar-heavy—it’s a great (re)introduction to Phair.

After a delicious first bite, Phair begins a slow decay into teen-ballad-land. The next three tracks sound at their best like decent Madonna or Sheryl Crow songs. At their worst (“Why Can’t It”), they’re facsimiles of Avril Lavigne’s radio hits. Then comes “Rock Me”—and thank the Lord for it.

“Oh, baby you’re young/But that’s OK/What’s give or take nine years, anyway?…You think I’m a genius/Think I’m cool/I’m starting to think that you young guys rule.” And we’re back to tuning sex symbol clichés into something far dirtier than anything Madonna has offered up since “Like a Virgin”: a thirtysomething mom who wants to explore what boys a decade her junior can do for her.

But the rock and roll of “Rock Me” and “Extraordinary” is spread too thin. In between the good stuff is decent pop or lyrical confessionals (“Little Digger”) of the sort that sucked when Sarah McLachlan tinkled them out on the piano a decade ago, and continue to suck today.

Add it up and you’re left with a new/old Phair easily dismissed by her lo-fi fans, and ready for embrace by girls who are done with Christina, but not quite ready for the Donnas.

St. Anger
Elektra Records

Oh, hard and furious speed metal, why’d you have to leave us? Why’d you have to be swallowed by grunge, eventually giving us Creed?

It would be a glorious thing if this review could hail the second coming of speed metal, or even the second coming of Metallica. But alas, it cannot. While St. Anger is better than the band’s mid-’90s releases, Metallica hasn’t yet scrubbed itself clean of the Creedness it picked up in the ’90s. During the first 1:45 of “Frantic,” fans of Master of Puppets will have butterflies racing through their stomachs. Then: wham. James Hetfield has left the building. In his combat boots is Creed’s Scott Stapp.

St. Anger is an effort to return to a glory lost when the band began courting the radio and MTV markets with “Enter Sandman.” Gone are the acoustic guitars, the ’70s-influenced boogie tunes and a good deal of the grunge (but not enough). What’s returned in their place are the odd-time-change epics and land-speed-record riffs (but again, not enough). There’s even a brooding evil voiceover on the eight-minute “Some Kind of Monster.”

Individually, each member of Metallica seems to be trying to get back to his roots, too—with varying degrees of success. Hetfield, when not sounding like a whiner, gives his best growls. Guitarist Kirk Hammett focuses on riffs instead of lengthy solos à la “One,” and picks up a few tricks from Rage Against the Machine. Drummer Lars Ulrich hits super hard on a kit that’s perfectly recorded. Producer Bob Rock fills in on bass.

If diehards can get over the short but ubiquitous wussy refrains, St. Anger will please, but it won’t replace anything Metallica did in the glory days.

Hail to the Thief
Capitol Records

For those mad few who have actually read Finnegan’s Wake, here is a suggestion: Wrap your mind around Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke’s lyrics for a while. On the band’s debut, Pablo Honey, Yorke wrote straight-ahead, autobiographical lyrics (“I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo”), but with each new album he’s gravitated toward Michael Stipe-like enigmatic compositions.

With Hail to the Thief, Yorke is in full-on confusing mode. It’s easy to guess that he’s talking about Iraq, lying politicians and technological advances that mystify and disaffect, but those would just be guesses. Then again, the words aren’t all-important. The vocals and the music behind them are good enough to make you forget to care if the song is about an Orwellian past or a dystopian future.

Radiohead isn’t likely to win new fans with Hail. The album’s sound is a blend of every trick they’ve learned over a career of innovative tricks. Yes, they’ve picked up their guitars again, but don’t expect OK Computer. They’ve also brought along the keyboards, programmed drum beats, PowerBooks and general weirdness of Kid A.

This time, the band so fond of doing 180s just keeps spinning, grabbing what works. The results make Thief their least cohesive album, and at the same time, their most fun.

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